Monday, April 11, 2005

On Saturday, my friend M. insisted that I watch Troop Beverly Hills, a mostly-forgotten Shelly Long vehicle from the late '80s that is most notable for featuring future Rilo Kiley front-person Jenny Lewis. My friend and I share a thing for cheesy teeny-bopper culture, and she thinks Troop Beverly Hills is a masterpiece of '80s kitsch. It's a totally silly movie, and it doesn't deserve serious scrutiny, but it made me think about something. It's actually typical of a whole genre that denegrates female ambition.

Troop Beverly Hills is an underdog story about the rivalry between two girl scout troops. (They're called "Wilderness Girls," but we all know what they are.) One is made up of spoiled rich girls from Beverly Hills. Instead of doing actual Wildnerness Girl activities, they shop, get their nails done, shop some more, and then they have Shelly Long's tailor create their own badges to celebrate these "skills." Instead of selling cookies, they get their parents' rich friends to have a benefit, hosted by Robin Leach. When it rains on their camping trip, they decide that sleeping in a tent is no fun, so they check into a four-star hotel, where they "camp" by ordering room service and play poker with the sexy bellhop. The other troop works really hard and has mastered genuine wilderness survival skills. At the end of the movie, these skills are tested in an orienteering competition at the annual Wilderness Girl jamboree.

Needless to say, the Beverly Hills girls are the underdogs and the hard-working, ugly, non-rich girls are the evil villains . They're led by the real baddie of the movie, a former army nurse who is so butch that people around her constantly refer to her as "sir." Now, this could partly be read as a celebration of being a decent person: the non-Beverly Hills girls are mean, and they cheat. We're given ample reason not to like them. But it's also a movie about the triumph of innate specialness over ambition and hard work. The bad troop's effort is part of what makes them so nasty, unfeminine, and doomed to humiliation. The good, Beverly Hills girls triumph because they do what is supposed to come naturally to the pretty and privileged: they shop, plan parties, and order room service. When they do what comes naturally, their innate sparkle and charm wins people over, and it ensures that they win.

This innate sparkle thing is something of a trope in ditzy literature aimed at women and girls. Take Kavita Daswani's Desi-themed chick lit book The Village Bride of Beverly Hills. In it, Priya, a young Indian woman who has just entered into an arranged marriage with a guy who lives in Los Angeles, struggles to deal with culture shock, difficult in-laws, and the tension between her desire for independence and her commitment to being a good wife. In an attempt to deal with all of this angst, she takes a job as a receptionist at an entertainment magazine. There, she quickly rises to become a reporter. Priya, it is made clear, knows nothing about journalism or about the American entertainment scene, and she doesn't even particularly want career success. But she's innately special. She's a good listener. Her guilelessness and simplicity make celebrities open up to her. She snatches the job away from a friend who is ambitious, competent, qualified, but just doesn't have that innate sparkle.

Now, I realize there's something really appealing about the fantasy of the triumph of innate specialness. It's a large part, I think, of the pleasure of the first Harry Potter book. I'm sure that a lot of picked-on, nerdy little kids enjoyed imaging that they had special powers and were destined to save the world. But the Harry Potter books also focus on the painstaking process by which Harry is educated to take on his destiny. His specialness may be innate, but it still has to be honed. What's unique about the way specialness is conveyed to women and girls, I think, is that it's contrasted with, not complimented by ambition and hard work. If you're a woman, your specialness is compromised if you try to succeed. You're much better off walking around in a cloud of fairy dust, confident that others will recognize your gifts and reward you.

And that's bullshit. I know someone who has succeeded as a reporter by projecting a Priya-like guilelessness and innocence, but it's a carefully-honed act. She knows exactly what she's doing, and she's worked hard to hone her reporting and writing craft. In real life, the girls who have worked hard to learn actual wilderness skills will win the Wilderness Girls competition. In real life, if the unambitious Beverly Hills girls get ahead in the world, it will be because of their parents' money and connections, not because of their innate specialness. (Tori Spelling, who has a small part in the movie, is exhibit A.) But most of us do not fall into that category, and it seems a shame that, even as the general culture is becoming more accomodating of female ambition, there's a whole genre of pop culture that still teaches girls that success will come their way if they don't put any effort into achieving it.

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